DC Comics has another line-wide reinvention coming up next month. It's exactly the kind of thing I should be excited about but I'm more worried than anything. Because of everything they have done in the last few years, it's almost impossible to get amped up about what's next for Superman, Batman and the rest of the publisher's iconic characters. But the best I can muster right now for DC Comics' print offerings is mild interest with a large helping of creeping dread.
These are the superheroes I grew up on, the ones who initiated me into the joys of shared universes, metahuman melodrama, goofy time travel plots and 'imaginary stories'. But, overall, the most recent re-imaginings have become increasingly blustery and bleak, and it feels like the company is tethered to a heavy-handed sensibility that's collapsing under its own weight.
The editorial directions in DC Comics' major titles have felt inconsistent and volatile for years. In 2011, the publisher rolled out its New 52 reboot, which attempted to streamline and modernise its fictional landscape with new takes on A-, B- and C-list franchises. After its multiverse-restoring crossover Convergence, DC's last major initiative came last year in the form of DC You, a suite of titles with a mix of old and new characters. That rollout had me more excited about DC comics than I had been for a while. The major status quo changes for Superman and Batman made those characters' various titles feel fresher and more unpredictable than they'd been for a while. Clark Kent lost his superpowers after getting outed as Superman. Jim Gordon did a long stint as a robo-suited Batman, grappling with the responsibilities of a Dark Knight in a fun and intriguing way. But the most recent high points have been only temporary pleasures. The initial uptick in likeability that happened when Superman lost his powers deteriorated into a growly aggression that felt anomalous. And it seemed like a lost opportunity to not make Bruce Wayne even a little bit more well-adjusted when he returned to the Bat-mantle.
Now the publisher has DC Universe: Rebirth on the way, an infusion of new ideas and talent that's meant to tap into the rich legacy and history that the New 52 jettisoned, according to chief creative officer Geoff Johns. I like a lot of the writers and artists behind the various Rebirth series that have been announced so far. Tom King is one of the hottest, most talented scriptwriters in mainstream comics today, and his upcoming Batman run has me legitimately pumped. The same goes for my feelings about Christopher Priest coming onto Deathstroke; he's one of my favourite writers ever and could bring a fresh take to the master assassin. But I can't deny the nagging sense that the creative talents' best efforts will lose steam for too quickly or be undermined by a line-wide stunt event that robs the various rebirths of charm or momentum.
There's a finicky alchemy that creators and editorial leaders need to master in serial superhero storytelling, which is turning the perpetual cycle of tease/excitement/reversal into a reliable stream of stories. Rumours have been churning for years about DC editorial's bad-faith dealings, with creators and internal political clashes negatively affecting morale. What once felt like a bad patch now feels like metastatic malaise. Right now, it seems DC can only conjure up magic in fits and starts. Its successes feel like anomalies, not the norm.
Warner Bros.' plans to work towards a cinematic Justice League appear to be undermined by this malaise, too. Batman v Superman's roller coaster box office performance is apparently prompting a wrong-headed reappraisal for the in-development movie adaptations. It's hard to imagine that the people in charge will allow for any kind of tonal multiplicity as they build out the film version of the DC Universe. At the moment, TV is the best place to experience the optimistic, aspirational ethos that characterised DC Comics for so long. The Flash and Supergirl both deliver heart-on-sleeve superheroics done up in colourful palettes and performances that prioritise sincerity and sacrifice. The animated movies that comes out several times a year also boast a high success rate insofar as delivering clever interpretations of DC characters and storylines.
The company that owns Superman generated some of the superhero genre's most effective best practices for storytelling. It's also driven much-beloved characters and franchises to the brink of extinction, sometimes via those self-same practices. Every major crossover and set of relaunches feels like the powers-that-be are pumping a well that's long gone dry. For example, they're killing Superman again. Right now, DC Comics needs to figure out how to fly up, up and away from its house-brewed editorial kryptonite.